New Mapping Tool Shows How Severe Nuclear Accident Could Look in U.S.
A new mapping tool released March 5 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) illustrates the potential radiological impacts of a severe accident at the nation’s nuclear reactors and flags risk factors associated with each individual U.S. plant. In the year since the disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has failed to enact a single safety mandate for U.S. reactors, even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised a 50-mile evacuation zone for U.S. citizens in Japan—a distance within which 120 million Americans live from U.S. plants—and there were five emergency shutdowns at U.S. facilities in 2011, due to earthquake or extreme weather.
“There are clear lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster, yet our government allows the risks to remain,” said NRDC Scientist Jordan Weaver, PhD. “It doesn’t have to take an earthquake and a tsunami to trigger a severe nuclear meltdown. In addition to human error and hostile acts, more common occurrences like hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding—all of which took place around the country last year—could cause the same type of power failure in U.S. plants.”
The mapping tool uses weather patterns from March 11-12, 2011 to calculate the radioactive plumes that would have occurred if the disaster happened at any of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. during that time.
While an earthquake and tsunami knocked out primary and backup power at Japan’s reactors, a similar multi-hour power loss could occur at U.S. plants through a variety of different means. In fact, the following five U.S. nuclear power plants lost primary power due to earthquake or extreme weather events in 2011, including tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding: Browns Ferry in Athens, Ala. (tornado); Calvert Cliffs in Lusby, Md. (hurricane); Ft. Calhoun, in Ft. Calhoun, Ne. (flooding); North Anna in Louisa, Va. (earthquake); and Surry in Surry, Va. (tornado). Fortunately, backup power systems kicked in, but if both primary and backup power sources are lost for even a matter of hours, it can lead to a meltdown, breach of containment, and an airborne radioactive plume.
Additionally, the NRDC online tool includes specific information about the risk factors associated with each U.S. nuclear plant. Many of the same risk factors present in Fukushima currently exist at U.S. plants, including:
- Design—Currently 23 U.S. nuclear reactors are the same type of “Boiling Water Reactor” as those involved in the Fukushima nuclear fallout, and do not protect against the release of radiation during a severe accident as effectively as other reactor types.
- Age—U.S reactors were designed for a 40-year lifespan, yet the NRC has approved 71 reactors at 32 nuclear power plants to operate for 60 years.
- Increased Power—90 percent of U.S. nuclear power plants have had their operating power increased beyond the original design intended for the reactors, increasing the challenge of effectively cooling the core in the event of an accident.
NRC and industry have failed to implement safety improvements in response to Fukushima. While the NRC taskforce provided more than 30 safety recommendations, to date they have not acted on any of them, including actions identified as urgent. These include:
- Seismic and flood concerns—While NRC initially called for the industry to provide information on these risks by 2015 in order to determine whether to take regulatory action to improve safety, this will remain largely unaddressed due to industry and staff complaints alleging “limited resources.” Now, the NRC is estimating that it will take approximately seven years to receive and process responses from all plants.
- No guarantee against hydrogen explosions—Three of Fukushima’s reactor buildings experienced hydrogen-induced explosions, contributing to the release of radioactive material. However, the U.S. currently does not require an adequate level of hydrogen mitigation measures in the event of a severe accident. In other words, one of the more destructive events in the evolution of Japan’s nuclear disaster is mostly being ignored.
- Lack of adequate venting to prevent containment failure—In Fukushima, operators encountered problems venting the reactor containments after the blackout, which could have helped prevent containment failure and the resulting uncontrolled radioactive releases to the environment. In 1990, the NRC acknowledged that Fukushima-style reactors in the U.S. have a high probability of failure in the event of core damage as well. Yet the NRC has stated the few venting systems in place could be compromised during a severe accident or station blackout. The NRC is still debating the installation of effective and available improvements, such as filters, that help to remove most of the radioactive particulates in the vent stream. Meanwhile, countries like France and Switzerland have already implemented some type of filtered venting system.
- No transparency on accident risks—NRC’s recommendations do not include any discussion of what would be considered unacceptable consequences from an accident in the U.S. The NRC and the nuclear industry must present realistic accident scenarios showing the full range and weight of environmental, economic and health risks posed by an accident so the public and policymakers can make informed decisions on how, or indeed whether they want older reactors with extended licenses to continue operating in their backyards. This is especially critical for communities in densely populated places like the New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles areas.
“We cannot afford to stand by idly and simply hope the worst won’t happen here,” said NRDC Senior Scientist Matthew McKinzie. “It is time for the NRC to do its job and safeguard the American people from a repeat of what we saw in Japan.”
For more information, click here.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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